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Roma Strategies and Policies in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia and the Migrant Issue

Authors

Allison Bailey, Video-Advocacy and Fundraising, NGO Organization Drom

Amanda Mayer, Video-Advocacy and Fundraising, NGO Organization Drom

May 30, 2018

Introduction

As the largest minority group in Europe, Roma are estimated to number between 10 and 12 million throughout the continent. Of these, about 2 million Roma live in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Within these three countries, Roma face many of the same issues as they do throughout the remainder of Europe, to include persistent segregation and social exclusion in the realms of education, housing, healthcare, and employment. As such, in 2011, the European Commission crafted the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020. This call for the implementation of individual national strategies for Roma integration stemmed from the principle that European institutions and EU member countries are responsible for improving the living conditions of the Roma communities within their borders. Each member country’s integration strategy was reviewed in 2012, and in 2013, the European Council issued a recommendation on effective Roma integration measures in EU countries, focusing on the four major areas of education, housing, healthcare, and employment. The Commission is tasked with producing annual reports from each country through the year 2020. The research in this article focuses specifically on the outcomes in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, and the impact of these policies on Roma migrants.

Policies and Strategies for Roma in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia

Hungary

According to an estimate by the Council of Europe, approximately 700,000 Roma live in Hungary, comprising just over seven percent of the country’s population. However, as is the case throughout the Visegrad countries, ethnicity is recorded only on the principle of self-declaration, which likely results in a significant statistical drop in the recorded number of Roma population compared to estimates. Hungary’s national integration strategy promotes social inclusion of Roma via special programs focused in the aforementioned four main areas of education, employment, housing, and healthcare. Funding for Roma integration measures during the 2014-2020 period is provided both by European Union funds and Hungarian multi-fund Operational Programmes, but local governments within the country may only receive support from national or EU funds if they have adopted local equal opportunity plans. For this reason, district roundtables exist to coordinate these local plans, and Roma representation is present through the national Roma self-government.

Roma student protest in Hungary

Image source: https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/roma-political-life-hungar...

In the realm of education, Hungary’s integration plan aims to promote Roma inclusion at the local and institutional level. Specific elements of this plan include the creation of Roma colleges for advanced study, of which there are currently nine throughout the country, with an estimated 235 students enrolled. Additionally, the government’s Road to Diploma programme provides support for approximately 900 Roma youth.

Integrated housing programs are also included in the country’s official strategy, aimed at promoting inclusion of Roma living in segregated neighborhoods. Specific targets include the establishment of community centres to provide hygienic and other services for inhabitants, as well as the provision of social housing. Regarding healthcare, Hungary aims to train 2,000 Roma women as healthcare mediators with the help of the European Social Fund. In particular, the women will be trained in social services, child welfare, and child protection services, as well as family support and community development.

Czech Republic

Roma are the most numerous minority in the Czech Republic. According to the Government Report on the State of the Romani Minority for 2016, there are an estimated 245,800 Roma living in the Czech Republic. However, the Roma minority within this country is relatively small compared with its neighbors. According to a 2015 government report, only about one half of the Romani people living in the Czech Republic are integrated into Czech society, while the remainder is socially excluded or at risk of social exclusion.

In 2015, the Czech government spent a total of € 2,477,500 on Roma integration. This funding was provided by the Ministries of Culture, Education, Regional Development, and the Office of the Government. Funds are allocated toward supporting Roma leaders at the local and regional levels, as well as assisting with social work. In addition, the Agency for Social Inclusion was created in Roma localities, intended as a measure to contribute systemically to Roma integration and prevent exclusion. The Agency, currently focused in 12 regions, is charged with coordinating local strategies for Roma inclusion and serving as an intermediary between different ministries responsible for Roma issues. However, due to its small number of employees and limited budget, the Agency has been criticized for failing to significantly impact Roma integration issues.

Roma children face systemic discrimination in the Czech primary school system. Beginning with a lack of access to primary education in the 1960s and 1970s, the transgressions committed by the Czech primary school system have taken shape in three main forms: a disproportionate number of Roma students placed in practical schools (primary schools designed for students with mild mental disabilities); the segregation of Roma students in mainstream schools and classrooms; and a variety of other forms of mistreatment in mixed schools such as lack of action regarding racially based bullying and excessive testing for mental disabilities before and after enrollment in school. According to Must Try Harder: Ethnic Discrimination of Romani Children in Czech Schools, a report by Amnesty International published in 2015, the Czech government has not done its due diligence to eliminate the systemic discrimination in primary schools. Rather than searching for a systemic solution, Czech authorities have enacted temporary solutions. They haven’t truly acknowledged the depth of discrimination and ethnic prejudice that exists in the Czech classroom. The Czech government created a Revised Action Plan in February 2015 in an attempt to accomplish the goals outlined in the 2012 Action Plan that did not come to fruition. This revised plan focused on the close monitoring of psychological assessments conducted by schools, as well as the integration of students attending “practical” schools into the mainstream school system. However, further action must be taken regarding the ethnic and racial prejudice that both student and parents face in the Czech school system.

Following the fall of communism and the Czech Republic’s transition to the market economy, the Roma people moved to the margins of employment. According to the Desegregation and Action for Roma Education Network, the high unemployment rates of the Roma community can be attributed to their low qualification and lack of education, as well as racism and prejudice among employers. The social system is also imbalanced. For some, it is more feasible economically to receive social benefits and welfare rather than be employed. This lack of economic stability has led to many Roma people becoming victims of usury, or being lent money at unreasonably high rates of interest. Regarding the unemployment issue, many government and non-government Roma organizations are focused on education. If provided education and the right skills, more Roma would be qualified for more jobs. However, the systemic problem of racism and prejudice amongst employers is a nagging issue that requires systemic change at a higher level of authority.

A segregated Roma neighborhood on the outskirts of Ostrava, Czech Republic

Image source: http://romove.radio.cz/en/clanek/21903

There is little research regarding the state of Roma healthcare in the Czech Republic. However, according to the European Roma Rights Center, there is a general consensus amongst Roma-focused government and non-government organizations that Roma health tends to be lower than that of the non-Roma population. Communicable diseases, lack of communication between Roma and health workers, and lack of preventative care are amongst the higher areas of concern regarding healthcare for Roma. The social disparity that is experienced by Roma in many facets of life also bleeds over into the prejudice they experience in healthcare. A big step was made in 2017 regarding access to healthcare and health insurance when the Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey released by the Fundamental Rights Agency admitted that “Neglecting health during the implementation of the national Roma strategy has led to a Roma health crisis.” Now, it is up to the Czech authorities to take the next step and implement the necessary strategies to improve Roma healthcare overall.

Slovakia

Roma are estimated to comprise the second largest ethnic minority in Slovakia, second only to ethnic Hungarians; however, about 500,000 Roma currently live in the country, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the total population.

Discrepancies in education between the Roma community and the majority population are visible in both level and quality of education received. Despite the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to education in their mother tongue as a recognized national minority, Roma within the country only benefit from one school where both the Slovak and Romani languages are utilized. This is due in part to the extreme shortage of teachers skilled in the language, as well as lack of textbooks and materials. As a result, the majority of Roma students attend Slovak schools, where they receive no lessons in Romani language and literature. In an effort to address the education gap, the Slovak government implemented a “zero year” program, in which schools with students hailing from “socially disadvantaged environments” (largely Roma students) received 200 percent of the regular funding level in a school year. In addition, class sizes are reduced to between 8 and 16 pupils, and curriculum is created by dividing one year’s normal curriculum into two separate years so that students can benefit from a more leisurely pace of instruction and thorough tutoring. Yet, despite the extra monetary and time investment in the zero year students, Roma pupils, as a whole, still fall behind in the Slovak education system. According to a study by the Roma Education Foundation (REF), an estimated 65 percent of Slovakia’s Roma children who completed elementary school have not continued their studies in high school. In addition, approximately 60 percent of all special education students in Slovakia are Roma.

In the realm of health, Slovakia’s Roma population suffers from deteriorated health status when compared to the majority population. Specific causes and manifestations of this discrepancy include low standards of personal hygiene, malnutrition resulting from poverty, and impeded access to healthcare due to lack of funds necessary to travel for doctor visits. The health epidemic is additionally relate to housing issues among the Roma community; specifically, factors such as insufficient access to clean drinking water and poor infrastructure plague Roma communities with health problems. In response, the Slovak government established the Program of Health Support for Disadvantaged Communities in 2007, which employed community workers in the realm of healthcare education. These workers served as mediators, spreading information and awareness throughout Slovakia’s Roma settlements. However, because of the high number of Roma settlements within the country-- over 600-- the program was found to be insufficient in its desired effect. In the years since, the Slovak government has set partial goals in line with the broader, global goal of bridging the health gap between Roma and the majority population. These stated goals include improving hygiene and creating mechanisms for waste collection and disposal in Roma communities, removing obstacles to healthcare services for Roma individuals, and implement greater awareness and education campaigns; however, no specific plans for implementation of these objectives have yet been laid out.

As is the case throughout several other European countries, a significant gap in safety, quality, and availability of housing is observable between the Roma community and Slovakia’s majority population. According to a 2010 survey by the UNDP, approximately 16 percent of all Roma households in Slovakia live in non-standard forms of housing. Segregated Roma settlements are located either on the outskirts or completely outside the official limits of municipalities and towns, and lack base infrastructure such as electricity, access to clean water, and sufficient waste removal and disposal mechanisms. In response, the government has passed Act No. 443/2010 on Subsidies for Housing Development and Social Housing, by which nearly 2,900 apartments were built throughout Slovakia to address the growing need for safe and available housing for ethnic minorities, such as the Roma. Yet, due to the scope of the housing problem, this act alone has been insufficient as a solution to the issue.

A Roma settlement in Slivinia, Slovakia, with homes made from old railway carriages and various materials from rubbish dumps

Image source: https://nigeldickinson.photoshelter.com/image/I0000Iy5PKmZd3t0

The presence of an extremist political movement within Slovakia poses a significant barrier to progress on Roma integration. Groups such as Slovenská Pospolitosť organize protests, advance racist rhetoric, and perpetrate acts of terror against the Roma minority, leading to misinformation and contributing to anti-Roma sentiment among members of the public and authorities alike.

Migrant Issue

On the whole, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have found themselves ill equipped to handle incoming Roma migrants. This is due largely to the troubled relationships between the Roma and the countries’ ethnic populations, as well as each government’s lack of resources and effective strategies for dealing with the current Roma populations within their borders.

The ongoing refugee crisis, which began in 2015, has directly affected the Roma in these European countries. The EU Emergency Relocation Scheme was implemented in an attempt to address the crisis; however, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary all openly opposed the immigration quotas set by this plan, refusing to take in the prescribed number of migrants. In Hungary, asylum laws have been tightened, and a border fence is being built along the country’s border with Serbia in an attempt to keep migrants-- a majority of whom are Roma-- from entering the country. For Roma migrants who do successfully gain entry into these countries’ borders, successful integration into society is rarely, if ever, achieved. Rather, they are relegated to second-class citizenhood, and subject to the familiar discrimination in education, employment, healthcare, and housing faced by the existing Roma communities, along with the intense marginalization caused by widespread anti-refugee rhetoric. This widespread ongoing struggle faced by Roma migrants in these countries is an indicator of the broader struggle throughout Europe to integrate marginalized Roma groups and successfully accommodate migrants through policy measures.

Conclusion

Despite the existence of individual country policies, integration of the Roma minority throughout Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia has been limited in success. Residential segregation, segregated education practices, and discrimination in healthcare and employment persist as cyclical problems throughout these societies. Although these countries have achieved successes in some areas as a result of their integration policies, demographic pressures, competition for financial resources, and the persistence of negative stereotypes and prejudices surrounding the Roma community function to inhibit more extensive progress. The integration plans, although robust in their codification, must be supported at the ground level by regional and local authorities within each of these three countries who actively contribute to their implementation. Additionally lacking is the presence of effective monitoring mechanisms to evaluate progress on each country’s specific policy objectives. Preparations, implementation and monitoring should be carried out in closer cooperation with the Roma civil society, as well as the aforementioned regional and local authorities, in order to foster success.

Implementation of lasting and effective improvements in the status of Roma throughout these societies is heavily reliant on collaboration between ministries, regions, municipalities, and the Roma communities themselves. Potential exists for partnership with various NGOs in the realm of coordinating efforts and funds, and facilitating communication between these various actors. The negative perception of the Roma by the majority population and deepened social distance between the two groups stands to benefit from coordinated efforts toward the elimination of deeply rooted stereotypes and prejudices that actively involve members of both the target population and the societal majority. Such efforts might include joint information and awareness campaigns, in addition to job creation and skill development programs for Roma in these countries with the resources and assistance of NGOs throughout Europe.

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